When Do Brands Overstep The Mark?

This is a brilliant sketch from Saturday Night Live, inspired by this year's Superbowl commercials, it captures the conversations that appear to be going on in marketing departments and ad agencies today...

In my opinion, it seems agencies and marketers need a sense check. They need to ask themselves if they really know why people buy what they buy.

Usually the reality is that most people just want products that simply meet their needs and do what they’re meant to do (some economists call this ‘satisficing’ – when people choose, they don’t always search through the detail of every option available to find the perfect choice).

Most people don’t need or want a brand to have a ‘higher purpose’ or to stand for something above and beyond the role that the product plays in their lives. 

Of course it’s a positive thing for brand owners to feel that their products have a useful and worthwhile place in their customers’ lives. But many brands are guilty of vastly overstating and overplaying their role in grand ‘brand purposes’.

Who wants to be told how to lead their life by a beer? Or moralised to by a soap manufacturer? Certainly no one outside of marketing departments and deluded agencies.

“The worst thing about these hyperbolic brand visions is that they lead to equally fantastical and idiotic tactical work.” Mark Ritson, Associate Professor of Marketing, Melbourne Business School.

I think this kind of self-important approach leads to cynical, patronising advertising that has nothing to do with the real reasons we choose the products and services we use.  People aren’t fooled by it. 

But what do you think? Is it okay for brands to get involved? When do you think brands overstep the mark?


  1. Advertising can't create desire - it can only channel existing desires in a certain direction.

    It's obvious that no one wants to be told how to lead their life by a beer. But what if the beer is just validating choices they are already making?

    I know a guy who operates in a niche market where a majority share his political beliefs, which he mentions frequently and passionately in his marketing. The product is completely unrelated. He sees it as a cornerstone of his success. Some people love him for saying what they are thinking, some people hate him because they disagree with his views. But almost no one is lukewarm towards him - which he believes is the key.

    The mass market is a different animal, of course, but I don't see why the same strategy wouldn't work. If the right brand rallied behind a contentious social issue, with an attitude of "fuck the other team, we'd rather they didn't buy our product anyway" then it could breath a lot of life into an insipid brand.

    That would take a serious set of stones though. Can't see it happening any time soon.

  2. Hi Ciaran, thanks for your interesting comment.

    Does it really hold true that advertising can't create desire, ever? I'm pretty sure I saw an ad for an ice cream once and it made me want one...

    Sounds like your friend has a good thing going. I think it's always good to try to understand why things work, importantly also to be skeptical. The idea of taking niche successes and imagining they can be transferred to mass market for example, as you rightly point out.

    I wonder what happens when the theoretical social contentious issue goes away though? Does the brand hop onto another issue? If so that feels a bit facile, and why would people interested in the second issue think the brand is being honest about its position? And if not, where does that leave it? Are we hoping that because people felt that brand had an affinity with their position on an issue that potentially has nothing to do with the product or service they make, that they will be a loyal customer forever? It is questionable, as studies (Byron Sharp's book) suggest that an emotional attachment to a brand has very little impact on buying behaviour.

    1. Creating demand is different from creating desire. That ice cream ad would be a lot less effective if you didn't like ice cream, or if you'd just been to the dentist, or if you were on a diet in the dead of winter.

      Funny you mention ice cream. When I was writing that comment I was also thinking about an ice cream shop in Manhattan called Big Gay Ice Cream. I'd generally agree with the adage "people love the brand because they love the product, not the other way around" but I think this case is perhaps an exception. It's also an example of a social issue that will always be contentious to some degree. Although, as you say, an ice cream shop in the East Village is another niche market. I can't see Walmart stocking Big Gay Ice Cream in their bible-belt locations anytime soon.

      It's also funny you mention Byron Sharp's book because I just started reading it last week. A bit of an eyeopener. I'll consider your comments as I read further.

      Thanks for the reply and for the excellent blog.

  3. Brands rarely jump on contentious issues. They normally want the world to be less racist , sexist...world peace day etc. What's the harm right? I think it's cynical at best. And and area I wish they'd not be involved with to be quite frank, especially when it comes to advertising their products.


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